China is the world’s excuse for cruelty and barbarism. If we don’t behave atrociously, politicians and columnists assure us, China will, so we had better do it first, before we are outcompeted.
You want holidays, collective bargaining rights and fair conditions in the workplace? Forget it. When Chinese workers have none, such fripperies would “hamper British/US/Australian/Canadian industry”, making it uncompetitive. Columnists like Thomas Friedman at the New York Times, gleefully regaling us with tales of Chinese workers being turfed out of their dormitories at midnight, marched to a workstation and obliged to perform a 12-hour shift to meet a last-minute order from Apple, insist that we either compete on these terms or perish. France, he once claimed, is doomed if it seeks to preserve a 35-hour week, while people in Asia “are ready to work a 35-hour day.”
In fact French workers are doing fine: it turns out that European countries with shorter working hours (France, the Netherlands and Denmark for example) have higher productivity per hour than those whose workers have to spend longer at their desks (such as Germany and Britain). And a country whose people have both decent wages and time to relax can support millions of jobs – in leisure and pleasure – that don’t exist where workers are treated as little more than slaves.
You want your rivers, air and wildlife protected? What planet are you on? China, we are told, doesn’t give a damn for such luxuries, with the result that if we don’t abandon our own regulations, it will take over the world.
On no topic are these claims made more often than on climate change. What is the point of limiting our greenhouse gas emissions, a thousand bloggers (and a fair few politicians) insist, if China is building a new power station every two weeks (or days or minutes or whatever the latest hyperbole suggests)? Taking action on climate change is useless and stupid in the face of the Chinese threat.
China is not just a country. It is whatever powerful interests want us to be. It is, they suggest, a remorseless, faceless, insuperable threat to civilisation, to which the only rational response is to abandon civilisation. So often is the threat invoked to justify the latest round of inhumane proposals that it needs a name. Perhaps we could hijack one: China Syndrome.